Jelly Roll Blues: Censored Songs and Hidden Histories

Hachette. Apr. 2024. 320p. ISBN 9780306831409. $30. MUSIC
Inspired by the central story of Jelly Roll Morton, Grammy Award-winning folk blues guitarist Wald (Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues) uncovers lyrics and backstories of the blues world that were redacted in their time. He joins the effort to analyze what was left out of mainstream historical blues accounts, foregrounding accounts of racism, forbidden songs, and misogynistic language. For example, there were multiple meanings for the common-in-blues terms “sporting,” “crib,” “booty,” and “parlor,” especially in the parlance of sex workers and those singing about them. Wald notes that the existence of the recording machine led to the substitution of refined lyrics for the middle-class mass market while different live versions remained. From alternative recordings to unexpurgated papers by folklorists at the Library of Congress and other repositories, this book exposes what some white song collectors misunderstood or misinterpreted rather than directly deleted. Wald also shows the significance of luminaries such as cornetist Buddy Bolden, Delta blues guitarist Sam Chatmon, W.C. Handy, and Louis Armstrong in preserving the oral culture and history of Black Americans and blues.
VERDICT An insightful explication of how some blues songs were hidden and censored, with a revelatory oral history.
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